Friday, February 15, 2013

The WayBackMachine and the Detail Mafia's Self-Image

by Vannevar Bush

The Post Gazette reports on a website used to coordinate jobs for off-duty police officers:

One website that investigators suspected of being part of the "detail mafia" has been taken down. A second website, believed by some to still be in use, touts "real time monitoring" and "automated text notifications."

When the reporter gives you text in quotes like that it's just an invitation, a hint, to google "real time monitoring" "automated text notifications" Pittsburgh Police.

And when you do Google that, you end up at:

If you go to that URL,, you'll see that the URL now points to a YouTube video. But what's kind of geek-cool is what the archives have at the WebWaybackMachine:

Kind of interesting if that's representative of their self-image. Sam Spade n'at.

Also, you could look up who registered the URL,, and it looks like a private registration that was created on March 17, 2011 and expires on March 17, 2013.

Just saying.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Bad Apples: The Deadly Power of Bad Examples

by Helen Gerhardt.

This is a Valentine's Day post dedicated to the memory of my friend and co worker Ka'Sandra Wade, who was murdered on New Year's Eve. She called 911 for help and the call was interrupted by “a commotion” according to the dispatcher. Neighbors report that gun shots were heard only after two police officers left her apartment, after they spoke to Anthony Brown and he reassured them that everything was okay. They did not speak to the woman who had called for help. Brown later wrote a note that claimed that the police could have saved her. 

In light of the recent spate of news and commentary regarding the professional performance, ethical consistency and supervisory duties of our Chief of Police, Nathaniel Harper and the continued "confidence" of our Mayor in "his" chief, I present a hypothetical scenario sent to me from an anonymous commenter by email under cover of a pseudonym - this person directly echoed my own thoughts:

"Imagine if the police were in a rush to leave Ka'Sandra Wade's place because they needed to get off-duty on schedule, without getting hung up -- so they could get to their second job, working security at a SouthSide bar."

No, as the commenter was careful to make clear, that suggestion was not a tip-off from a whistleblower within the Pittsburgh police force.  It's a rational extrapolation based on well documented, prevailing patterns of institutionally supported moonlighting. It's a bitter guess based on the evident exploitation of the powers vested in our public police force to satisfy private profit motives. I'm willing to bet that email is only one example of many such darkly cynical speculations that express common erosions of public confidence when bad examples are rewarded within power structures that have been entrusted with deadly force to "protect and serve."

Caption Contest

by Vannevar Bush
Please feel free to submit your photo-captions as comments, keeping in mind that the Comet is a family-friendly blog.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Federal Agents: Pittsburgh is a Cool Place to Be.

Times Union / AP: Paul Sakuma


Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson said between four and six FBI agents visited the Special Events and Personnel and Finance offices. He said they took records involving secondary employment, training and travel. The personnel office oversees payroll and other expenditures, and special events oversees officers working in uniform while off duty. (Trib, Harding & Bauder)

It doesn't seem directly related to the knapsacks contract in the news. For archival material on issues which can and have arisen involving police officer secondary employment and the assignment of special event details, see the Admiral: Part I, The Problem; Part II, The Solution; Part III, The Capitulation.

I am given to understand that some years after what is covered in "Capitulation" that aspects of the City's cost recovery and of the assignment of details were reformed -- but there could always be work-arounds or related issues.

UPDATE: Indeed, here is what I meant by "work-arounds": the Detail Mafia.

See also P-G, Silver, Navratil & Smydo; WTAE, AP.

ALSO: Officer selling swag with City logos. Why not? WTAE.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Fitz-Fracking the Aerotropolis

B-list post by Vannevar Bush while Bram is on special assignment.

In this Age of Google sometimes new stories boil down to keywords, and this week brought a story with keywords eerily reminiscent of headlines from back in the day: "Allegheny County", "Airport", "500 million", "20 years".

Twenty years ago, Allegheny County spent 500 million on the Midfield Terminal, which was an "investment in the future". As another blogger has recently pointed out, not everybody liked it at first but the Commisioners worked it until they got the politics and the numbers aligned and the County went ahead and built it.

At the time it was considered brilliant, a down payment on a future so bright you'd have to wear shades. How did that Midfield investment work out, and - with the benefit of hindsight - was it an investment or a gamble? If we knew then what we know now, if we knew of the risk of the County's Authority being saddled with hundreds of millions in debt, if we knew that a corporation could fill out some forms and walk away from an obligation, would we still gamble that half-billion dollars of the public treasury?

That's a key distinction: are our elected officials investing or gambling with the public treasury?

Turning from that somber bit of reflection, let's consider this week's bold pronouncements. The Allegheny County Executive (ACE) announces a 500-million deal for fracking at the PIT airport. Wow, this is great, let's go!

He has certainly opened the discussion by reframing it. But let's look at the details. What is really assured is $50M up front, and possibly up to $22.5M per year for twenty years - if everything works as advertised, best-case scenario.

Let's set the Fitz-Frack issue aside, for just a moment, and talk about the Airport and what it means. Right now it's a white elephant, a dead horse that we're still paying for, and yet it's also in spite of all that a key economic asset for the region. (key word: region).

The economic model for future development of "the region" is Allegheny County developing along the Aerotropolis model. (See the CMU report, story about the Robt. Morris Conference, official County 2011 ACED report.)

To do the Aerotropolis thing, you've got to have: (1) an Airport, (2) a City, (3)a Corridor with highway and transit connections between them. The government entity that contains all of those components is Allegheny County, and the person nominally in charge/responsible for that is the ACE. Wow.

The City is an essential node, it has functions it must perform that the suburbs and the Corridor cannot, but the city is an essential and insufficient player; the City cannot drive the Aerotropolis, only the County can. That recognition makes the recent moves in the transit and airport authorities more significant, and the Fitz-Frack announcement much more compelling.

Half-Billion Bets on the 20-Year Come: Gambling vs Investments with the Public's Fortune

In framing the Fitz-Frack decision (now a foregone conclusion, if the citizenry sticks to the ACE's script) as a financial no-brainer rather than a risky option that puts the airport (the key to the Aerotropolis and regional economic development) at risk, the ACE is betting on the come.

Just as we've seen (now) with the Midfield Terminal, the win/lose on the Fitz-Frack bet won't be known for twenty years, long after these players have moved on to their ignominy. And as we learned with Midfield, giving a corporation what it wants now and taking a long-term payoff doesn't make sense in the context of bankruptcy law. (Remember USAir?)

Here's the two alpha-questions I'd like to ask, in response to the ACE's gotta-play-to-win big money no-brainer reframing job:

  • Has any aviation official (not a board member or political appointee) said that fracking at the airport is a good idea that won't put the airport operation at risk?
  • The County can't touch the airport frack money; federal law requires that any airport frack money be used for airport improvements. Has any federal budget official concurred with the Fitz-Frack plan to divert Frack-Funds into airport real estate development, as the ACE suggests?

If we had political discourse, or public discussion about public decisions rather than half-billion announcements from the ACE, it would be interesting to see these questions addressed:

  • Is it worth risking the crown-jewel airport, which cost $500M in 1992, for $50M upfront and the promise of up to $22.5M a year, varying with market activity?
  • Was it necessary to remove the Airport CEO, who had a distinct focus on the whole airplane and runway thing, before announcing the Fitz-Frack plan? Why?
  • Given the County's experience with USAir, bankruptcy, and long-term finance, isn't the Fitz-Frack plan essentially "trusting an oil company"?

A photo of a recent fracking event in WV:

Let me re-present the Fitz-Frack plan from a less sanguine perspective.

  • Let's go out to the airport, which is a key economic driver which we can't afford to damage or lose, and drill for flammable and explosive materials.
  • Even though the airport's main asset is long pieces of straight, level, smooth concrete, let's pulverize the earth underneath the runways.
  • Even though there's an active underground mine fire in the south-western portion of the airport property, let's punch a lot of holes through the rocks and move flammable gas through them, cause they're at different depths and that can't possibly go wrong because they line the holes with concrete, just like in the Gulf of Mexico. (See BC Times, story, link )
  • Let's do a lot of industrial activity at the airport where there won't be any NIMBY neighbors, even though the prevailing wind puts most of Allegheny County's population downstream.
  • Let's give the ACE a future-money stream that he can monetize now, so he can pursue his agenda and let others pay the bills in twenty years.
  • Let the politicians and not the aviation-operational types make the decision about what to do at the airport.
  • Nothing can go wrong. (See Centralia, PA)

Personally, I liked it most when gambling was illegal.
I liked it less when gambling was restricted to casinos.
I don't like at all when gambling is used as public policy.

Washington Blvd. Flood Follies

Seattle Must Have

It's a fluid world out there. While the Comet works out technical and scheduling difficulties, consider this:

The irony of this road-raising plan, though, is that while it would effectively lift the road out of the basin, it would make the flooding worse in the valley beside it. By essentially sliding the roadway over to the east, high against the hillside, the sloping western shoulder would make this unnatural bathtub smaller. So water would go higher. Not good. (P-G, Brian O'Neill)

Strange how it sounds like MS Consultants, whose selection Dowd criticized recently, came back with what the Councilman / Board Member considered the wrong kind of work -- yet is going back to the drawing board to research his concerns anyway. Either they and the Mayor's office are showing a surfeit of expensive good will, or else Dowd's critique of the long-awaited plan was enormously valid.


Sunday, February 10, 2013

A More Regional Transit Vision

By Shawn Carter

Looks like I get to close out Transit Week here at the Pittsburgh Comet.

On Monday, I asserted that Allegheny County needs to devise a mass transit system that served the "economic interests and day-to-day needs" of the other nine counties in our "designated" region.

Specifically, I intimated that Pittsburgh and Southwestern Pennsylvania needed a comprehensive commuter rail system.

One that could carry passengers from New Castle to Connellsville, from Avella to Blairsville, from Apollo to Washington, from Butler to Uniontown and everywhere in between.

I've worked through several different representations of what this would look like, but this represents, quite possibly, the most natural of them...  The one we had 70 years ago...

Click to Enlarge

This was commuter rail in Southwestern Pennsylvania -- in 1942.

Ten years before the debut of the Penn-Lincoln Parkway and 18 years before the Fort Pitt Tunnels would open to traffic, Southwestern Pennsylvania had an extensive commuter rail system.

From the turn of the 20th Century until the early 1950's, commuter rail AND intercity passenger rail were provided by:

The major railroads.

This was in addition to the extensive streetcar and bus service provided by the Pittsburgh Railways Company. (be careful, this link is almost 8MB.)

Pittsburgh was the City of Steel, and these rail lines were its arteries.

In fact, if you lived near a pair of these:

You could get anywhere.

A great deal changed in a short time.

By 1954, the Parkways were open and by 1960, the Fort Pitt Tunnels opened.  The railroads shut down almost all commuter rail service during the 1950's, leaving fewer than a handful in operation.

Pittsburgh to College Station (Geneva College) in Beaver Falls (P&LERR) and Pittsburgh to Connellsville.

The Pittsburgh to College Station service -- Which started at a place now familiar to those of us who enjoy some occasional nightlife:

And ended here:

Was discontinued in 1985.

In 1980-1981, PennDOT was doing MAJOR construction work on the Parkway East, and as an alternative, PennDOT provided commuter rail service between Greensburg and Pittsburgh, with stops in Jeannette, Irwin, Pitcairn, Swissvale, Wilkinsburg and the Pennsylvania Railroad passenger terminal Downtown.

It was called the Parkway Limited.  It didn't last beyond the Parkway reconstruction, and was largely supplanted when the Martin Luther King, Jr. East Busway came on-line in 1983.

Which leaves us with the Pittsburgh to Connellsville service -- and it traveled an even more interesting journey.  The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad decided, in the early 1970's, to discontinue this route.  City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County officials fought to keep this route alive, and succeeded.

Does anybody remember this?

PATrain 6691 on the tracks at Grant Street Station in 1981

Or better yet, THIS:

B&O Railroad Station

Port Authority Transit (now Port Authority of Allegheny County), with funding from PennDOT, maintained a truncated version of this route from Versailles to Pittsburgh until 1989 utilizing the same right-of-way.  

This very same right-of-way was at one point considered for the Parkway East, except that it would have disrupted "industry" along the corridor. Which in retrospect is absolutely hilarious since almost the entire length of this industrial corridor essentially became a miles-long brownfield.

Most of us can't even remember the location, much less the existence of this train station.

I'll give you a hint.  Something else now sits on that site:

PNC Firstside
You may be asking yourself, "Okay, so PNC Firstside sits on the site of the former B&O Railroad Station at the corner of Grant Street and First Avenue.  What happened to the rail infrastructure, the right-of-way that infrastructure occupied?"

Funny you should mention that.  The right-of-way you're wondering about was explained, rather, extolled by Dr. Vannevar Bush just the other day.

Much of it is now part of the approximately first 19 miles of the Great Allegheny Passage.

The truth about Pittsburgh (and Southwestern Pennsylvania) is we were always at our best when we could get anyone who wanted to work from where they lived to where they worked.  

Our riverfronts may, in fact, look substantially better than they did just 30 years ago.  But the question I posed the other day, and that we need to look seriously at as we come of age and take our turn at managing and directing the use of public assets (or assets that can become public if we acquire them) is this:

"Is it the highest and best use of this particular class of public assets?"  Or, more practically, "is it the most productive use of those assets?"

"Does enhanced and expanded public access to our waterways lead to a diversity of economic development that the masses can feel, or does it just look nicer?"

"Would the fate of McKeesport, Braddock, Rankin, Swissvale, Glenwood and Hazelwood be better served with a commuter rail line?"  

Perhaps we should pose that question to Braddock Mayor John Fetterman.  

Or, more timely still, the consortium of foundations, non-profits and the NGO known as RIDC what commuter rail on that right-of-way may or may not do to enhance their billion-dollar project in Hazelwood along the river.  

Although, a transit rail connection from Downtown through Hazelwood to the Waterfront in Homestead might be more connective of our recent economic investments in the area.  

But that's really my point.  Our elected officials make choices, many times decades in the past that dictate the current course of affairs.

And it's also the message of this post.  

Kudos to Pittsburghers for Public Transit, its organizer(s) and supporters for remaining dedicated to the proposition that transit is an economic imperative for all.

I'm glad that an organization like the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group is bringing their intellectual firepower to bear on this issue as well.

The reality is, in all honesty, that the transit system we're fighting and working to build will either be a benefit to or detriment to our children.  And to their children.

That's the reality of major public infrastructure.  It usually takes a REALLY long time.  It took 23 years from the time that "prominent" East End residents and local officials began pushing the idea of an expressway from Churchill to Campbell's Run to the ribbon-cutting of the Penn-Lincoln Parkway.

This is something we have to keep in mind as we look at today's asset portfolio and decide which pieces we keep, and which pieces we dispose of.  

Army General George S. Patton said once during World War II, when asked whether or not he intended to pull back from his current position and regroup, "I don't like paying for the same real estate twice, Freddy."

Keep his words in mind.  Because it is extremely difficult to get back that which we give away.

So the next time someone tells you that we ought to remove public infrastructure because we're not now using it and essentially "build a park", ask them, "Will this park get me to a job I can actually raise my family with?  Will it get my children to school?  Will it get my client(s) to and from the airport?  Will it service my (or my kids') institution of higher learning or major medical institution?"

I said the other day that my goal was to bike the Great Allegheny Passage.  

Still true.  

But I also realize that the investments that this city, county and region must make if it is to remain competitive in the global market for attracting livable-wage and high-wage jobs, we must be able to move people efficiently from home to job market, regardless of where home is or where that job market is located.

A more regional transit vision will require nothing less from us.

United They Rule = Private Public Perils

By Helen Gerhardt

Governor Corbett announced scant details of his transportation plan on February 5th. Most eyes are drawn to the lowball figure of $40 million for all mass transit across all of Pennsylvania this year when that's the estimated amount needed to bring just SEPTA back to speed over in Philly. Corbett may well profit from the panic and confusion that has been generated in some quarters as transit agencies and advocates try to figure out how that money would be distributed and where it would come from - the lifting of the cap on the gas tax will follow old patterns of plunge as auto fuel efficiency increases. That's why we're in shortfall right now. 

Corbett has several times in the past declared that the funding of any transportation plan will probably be generated at least partially through private-public partnerships, as they have now been enabled by Act 88, passed in 2012 with none of the fanfare and trumpets invited by the governor for the release of this current proposal. The report of Corbett's Transportation Funding Advisory Commission, headed up by the redoubtable Secretary of Transportation, Barry Schoch, states that:  
Public-private partnerships . (PPPs) are contractual arrangements in which a private business teams with government to accelerate the maintenance, improvement, and expansion of roads, bridges, or other transportation infrastructure. The governmental entity—either state or local—owns the asset or facility, but contracts with a private entity to develop, construct, manage, operate, or finance a given project. Public-private partnerships create efficiencies, save costs, shorten construction timelines, and bring private investment into transportation. “ (from p 62-63)

But no nitty-gritty details of such how such partnerships might be employed were released on February 5th, only the bluff bullet point resolution to: "Create a Public Private Partnership (P3) office to oversee the new public/private partnership law."

Public-private partnerships can indeed result in highly productive and creative collaborations for Transit Oriented Development and for incorporation of technological advances as exemplified by the Oyster cards used in London for fare and data collection. But policy analysts and transportation advocates agree that for such partnerships to truly serve the public, rigorous oversight by executive branches of project evaluation, community input on selection of high-impact projects, bidding transparency and contract negotiation are all crucial. 

Yet Governor Corbett's record has raised concerns that he has been a consistent ally and financial beneficiary of the corporate interests that most stand to benefit from such consequential processes. And where privatization is concerned, the Governor's record seems to make clear whose money calls his shots: 
Gov. Tom Corbett's new government privatization task force is studded with major political donors and executives from companies that could see financial gain if the state spins off government services to the private sector."…“The 24 members of the panel, formally known as the Governor's Advisory Council on Privatization and Innovation, have donated millions of dollars to Republican Corbett's past campaigns. And its chairman, attorney John A. Barbour, heads a law firm with state contracts. (John L. Micek, Call Harrisburg Bureau)
That hefty hitting case in point, our own “Jack” Barbour chief executive officer, managing director, and board chair of the law and government relations firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney PC based here in Pittsburgh has represented developers, lenders, and equity participants in complex commercial and real estate transactions across the nation. Barbour is a member of the board of directors of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and member of the Pennsylvania Business Council Policy Roundtable. Nothing wrong with any of that if he represented some balance within a range of interests and stakeholders - in fact, because so many of his clients have been involved in such a range of such partnerships, it could be highly valuable to have someone of his experience and expertise on the Council.  

But Barbour was also co-chair of the Tom Corbett for Governor Committee and Co-chair of Governor Tom Corbett's Transition Team. If a full seventy percent of the Governor's Advisory Council on Privatization and Innovation did not consist of Corbett donors, if so many of the chosen ones did not stand to directly profit from privatization across a wide range of fields, perhaps the potential for conflict of interest would not be so alarming. 

But concerns of outright corruption were spotlighted in January by the news that Corbett only belatedly reported the gift of a costly vacation from John Moran, head of Moran Industries, a Northumberland County logistics company specializing in trucking, rail, and warehouse facilities. Yes, Corbett had appointed Moran to that same Council on privatization.Yes, Moran is also listed as contributing $45,750 and another $38,000 in donated transportation service.

As a result of such "pay to play" politics, most of us know that many voters express fears of disenfranchisement, and doubts of their ability to contribute meaningful input or impact on the decisions that will most affect their lives .  

In future posts, as Bram has room here at the Comet, I'll provide examples of public-private partnerships across a range of public infrastructures and services that have demonstrated the validity of such fears and doubts, again and again and again, across these many United States. 

Helen Gerhardt is Community Organizer for Pittsburghers for Public Transit: